Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-01-20.
When vessels would sail up the West Passage of Narragansett Bay, they were presented with a "fork in the road" which was Warwick Neck. They could either head west and into Greenwich Bay, or head east and carry on towards Providence.
If the vessels were to head east and carry on towards Providence, they would have to navigate through the narrow passage between Warwick Neck and Patience Island, some two-thirds of a mile to the south. Due to thriving commerce, there was an uptick in shipping traffic heading in and out of Providence.
Although there may have been a private aid to navigation in the area as early as the late 1700s, Congress made an appropriation of $1,000 on March 3, 1825, and an additional appropriation of $2,000 on March 14, 1826 for the construction of a lighthouse at Warwick Neck. To provide a location for the structure, three acres of land was purchased for $750 from the Green family.
The lighthouse, completed in 1827, was an odd structure built of stone and consisting of two small rooms with a thirty-foot tower on top. The tower had tapered sides near the top which gave it an octagonal appearance. The illuminating apparatus consisted of eight lamps outfitted with nine-inch reflectors arranged around a circular table.
1827 Warwick Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The first keeper appointed to the station was Edmund Burke, who declined the position. The first keeper to serve at the station was Elisha Case, who found the quarters confined and damp. He had additionally provided for his family by farming the lighthouse grounds.
Mr. Case had planted crops and constructed a barn, and when his replacement, Daniel Waite, showed up in 1831, Mr. Case refused to leave. He asked to be able to see his crops through to harvest, and to be compensated for the bard he constructed on the grounds. The Lighthouse Board allowed him to harvest his crops, but he received no restitution for the barn.
Like Elisha Case before him, Keeper Waite also found the quarters quite small and requested additional space from the Lighthouse Board. They had complied with the request and in 1833 a one-story; three-room wood frame structure was adjoined to the back of the original dwelling. Within six years, the junction between the 1826 and the 1833 structures was leaking badly. Conditions improved with repairs and the structure was used for another fifty years.
Along with the Newport Harbor and the Block Island North Lighthouses, a Fresnel lens was recommended for the Warwick Lighthouse in 1855. By 1856, the new fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed which cast its light out in a 270-degree arc.
Over the next decade, life at the lighthouse was pretty regular. The days consisted of the usual work interspersed with general repairs. Woodwork needed painting, ceilings needed repair, and gates that needed replacement were some of the tasks required at the station.
September 8, 1869, a hurricane would strike the area. The lighthouse fared relatively well. The roof of the dwelling was largely damaged, the fence surrounding the property was blown down, and the outhouses were demolished. But the biggest casualty was the extensive erosion of the bluff with a large section being washed away. Repairs were soon made.
By 1878, the Lighthouse Board had reported that the buildings of this station are old and in dilapidated condition. Repairs were underway, and expected to be completed early in the season.
Several years later in 1882, a fog bell was implemented at the lighthouse. The bell was operated by an automatic striking mechanism. At this time, it was reported again that the keeper's dwelling was in poor condition, and replacement was recommended.
By 1887, the Lighthouse Board had again noted that the dwelling was in poor condition, and had asked for an appropriation of $8,000 for its replacement. The following year, the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
147. Warwick, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island - Orders have been given for the erection of a new keeper's dwelling at this station.
By 1889, a new keeper's one-and-one-half story Victorian wood-framed dwelling was built further back from the bluff. As there was a new keeper's dwelling, the 1833 addition was removed in 1892, set upon a new foundation, and turned into a barn.
Starting in 1890, the Lighthouse Board had recommended a steam-power fog signal be established with an estimated cost of $5,000. This recommended must have been ignored as it was repeated each year from 1891 to 1894.
By 1896, erosion was again threating the station. Some 250 running feet of fence was moved back from the bluff to prevent it from being undermined.
The station finally received the upgraded fog signal in 1900, nearly a decade after the first requests were made. A blower siren operated by a two-and-one-half-horsepower oil engine was established. During periods of foggy weather, the fog signal would sound a continuous blast.
A similar system was installed at Pomham Rocks Lighthouse in 1900 which lead to the following headline in the local newspaper "THE GREATEST NUISANCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE STATE." Although there is no mention of complaints at the Warwick Lighthouse, the continuous blast lasted less than a year before being changed to an interval as evidenced in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1901:
208. Warwick, Rhode Island - The fog-signal engines, etc., were overhauled. The characteristic of the blower siren fog-signal was changed on June 15, 1901, from a continuous blast to blasts of 3 seconds' duration separated by silent intervals of 3 seconds.
Erosion would again resurface in the 1920s. By 1924, a concrete retaining wall was installed, but the lighthouse was close to the edge. Although a new lighthouse was recommended, it would still be eight more years before a new tower was constructed.
The new forty-three foot cast-iron cylindrical tower was constructed further back from the bluff close to the 1889 keeper's dwelling. Once completed in June of 1932, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was relocated to the new tower to continue duty. The incandescent oil vapor system was shuttered in favor of a 500-watt electric lamp.
Warwick Lighthouse circa 1932 (Courtesy Coast Guard)
The Great Hurricane of 1938 would start as a category 5 storm in the open Atlantic. But by the time it made landfall in the Northeast, it would be downgraded to a category 3 with gusts reaching 121-mph. Like many of the other lighthouses in the area such as Beavertail and Whale Rock, the Warwick Lighthouse was impacted by the force of the hurricane.
Although the Warwick area took considerable damage, the Warwick Lighthouse fared well; it was the bluff that took to the brunt of the damage. A large chuck of land had been washed away which left the lighthouse just several feet from the edge.
The following year, work crews arrived and unbolted the tower from the foundation. Massive jacks were employed to raise the thirty-five ton tower onto logs, where it was rolled to its new location some fifty feet inland. Once there, it was placed upon a new eight-foot octagonal concrete foundation to give it additional height. The entire move took less than a day.
The lighthouse, automated in 1985, was the last to be automated in Rhode Island. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed at that time, and replaced with a modern optic. The Coast Guard still occupies the 1889 keeper's dwelling.
Directions: Located at the end of Warwick Neck Ave. The station is closed to the public, but you can view it from the road. The best view would be from the water.
Access: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of an Active Coast Guard base. Grounds and tower closed.View more Warwick Lighthouse pictures